A large number of experimental studies in animals and retrospective or non-randomised prospective studies in humans provide support for the concept that the microvascular complications of diabetes mellitus are dependent on hyperglycaemia. This review focuses on four potential biochemical pathways linking hyperglycaemia to changes within the kidney which can plausibly be linked to the functional and structural changes characterising diabetic nephropathy. These four pathways are the polyol pathway, non-enzymatic glycation, glucose autoxidation and de novo synthesis of diacylglycerol leading to protein kinase C and phospholipase A2 activation. Rather than being independent, there are several potential interactions between these four pathways which may explain confusing and overlapping effects observed in studies examining inhibitors of individual pathways. As many of the steps which follow on glucose metabolism are subject to modification by dietary and pharmacological means, the further delineation of the pathogenetic sequence leading to tissue damage in diabetes should allow a logical and effective approach to the prevention or treatment of the complications of diabetes.